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A waaaay too early 2011-12 preseason Top 25

Apr 5, 2011, 8:15 AM EDT

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Until teams know who’s off to the NBA and who’s staying in school, a preseason Top 25 is merely fodder for discussion.

With that, here’s the fodder.  

1. Kentucky

Record: 29-9 (Final Four)
Key returnees
: SF DeAndre Liggins, SG Doron Lamb, SF Darius Miller, C Eloy Vargas, SF Jon Hood.
Departing seniors: C Josh Harrellson
May lose: PG Brandon Knight, PF Terrence Jones
Incoming recruits: PG Marquis Teague, SF Michael Gilchrist, PF Anthony Davis, PF Kyle Wiltjer

Provided the John Calipari-NBA rumors don’t come true next season, the Wildcats enter 2011-12 as the team to beat. Even if Knight and Jones both enter the NBA draft, Kentucky has more than enough talent arriving to offset those losses. Davis, Teague and Gilchrist are the top-rated recruits at their respective positions and Wiltjer’s also a 5-star prospect. That makes this the best class Calipari’s reeled in while at Kentucky. They’ll be young, but we’ve seen Kentucky thrive with freshman-laden teams in the last two years. Plus, the Wildcats wil have solid seniors in Liggins and Miller. They won’t be overwhelming favorites, but there’s more than enough talent to make them No. 1.

2. North Carolina

Record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Kendall Marshall, SG Leslie McDonald, SG Dexter Strickland, SF Reggie Bullock
Departing seniors: PF Justin Knox
May lose: SF Harrison Barnes, PF John Henson, C Tyler Zeller
Incoming recruits: PF James McAdoo, SG P.J. Hairston

The skinny: This one comes with a caveat that at least two of the Heels’ likely early entrants – Barnes, Zeller and Henson – return to school. Call me crazy (there’s a comments section below), but it seems like a year when guys are more likely to stick it out another year because of the impending NBA lockout. That happens, UNC will be stocked at every position with five-star talent. (And if all three return? Heels could make an argument for No. 1) Still, there are concerns about frontcourt depth and if McAdoo and Hairston can contribute right away. This could be another UNC team that struggles at the start, but thrives at season’s end.

3. Duke

Record: 32-5 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PF Mason Plumlee, SG Seth Curry, PF Miles Plumlee, G Andre Dawkins, SF Ryan Kelly
Departing seniors: SG Nolan Smith, SF Kyle Singler
May lose: PG Kyrie Irving
Incoming recruits: SG Austin Rivers, PG Quinn Cook, C Mason Plumlee, SF Michael Gbinije

The skinny: Even if Irving – the likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft – bolts, the Devils are primed to replace him and Smith with Rivers and Cook, both of whom are 5-star talents. Rivers is the top scorer of the ’11 class, while Cook thrives as a creator and floor leader. The bigger questions might be if Duke can fill Singler’s role as a versatile scorer and defender. That means more time for the Plumlees and Kelly, and perhaps incoming Gbinije. Irving says he’ll make a draft decision soon, which would affect their ranking here. He returns, they’re right behind Kentucky as the team to beat.

4. Syracuse

Record: 27-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Scoop Jardine, SF Kris Joseph, SG Brandon Triche, SG Dion Waiters, SF C.J. Fair, C Fab Melo, PF Baye Moussa Keita
Departing seniors: PF Rick Jackson
Incoming recruits: C Rakeem Christmas, SG Trevor Cooney, SG Michael Carter-Williams

Jim Boeheim loses just one starter (Jackson) from a 27-win team that adds two impact recruits in Christmas and Carter-Williams, and another who can provide offense off the bench. The Orange will miss Jackson’s reliable rebounding and post defense, but he’s hardly irreplaceable. They’ll need Jardine to be more consistent and for Joseph and Melo to finally deliver on their tantalizing skills, but all the pieces are there for Syracuse to post yet another outstanding season. Maybe this is too high, but so be it. Given the other uncertainties surrounding other teams, ‘Cuse gets a bump for its known qualities.

5. Connecticut

Record: 32-9 (Won national championship)
Key returnees
: PF Alex Oriakhi, SG Jeremy Lamb, PG Shabazz Napier, SF Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, PF Roscoe Smith, C Tyler Olander
Departing seniors: SG Donnell Beverly, C Chuck Akwandu
May lose: PG Kemba Walker
Incoming recruits: PG Ryan Boatright

The skinny: UConn’s a tempting team. There’s no lack of talent in Storrs, and 5-star prospect Boatright only adds to that mix. More impressive was that the Huskies didn’t play like a young team in 2010-11. But … that was with Kemba running the show and making plays when needed. When he struggled, the Huskies struggled, thus their 9th place finish in the Big East. There’s enough here to make a Top 5 team, but there are going to be nights when they dearly miss Walker.

6. Arizona

Record: 30-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Momo Jones, SG Kyle Fogg, SF Solomon Hill, SF Kevin Parrom, SF Jesse Perry, PG Jordin Mayes
Departing senior: PF Jamelle Horne
May lose: PF Derrick Williams
Incoming recruits: PG Josiah Turner, SG Nick Johnson, PF Angelo Chol, PF Sidiki Johnson

The skinny: Williams is good as gone, but that’s no reason to write off the Wildcats, who return every other starter and bring in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. That’s more than enough to offset the loss of one player, no matter how good he may be (Read: Evan Turner/Ohio State). Arizona didn’t get much respect nationally until it handled Duke in the NCAA tournament, and that wasn’t all because of Williams. It was the mark of a team that finally started to play defense and live up to an enormous amount of talent on the roster. Don’t expect the team to make 40 percent of its 3-pointers again, but do expect Sean Miller’s club to win the Pac-10 and vie for a No. 1 seed out West.

7. Louisville

Record: 25-10 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Peyton Siva, PF Terrence Jennings, SG Chris Smith, PF Jared Swopshire, SF Kyle Kuric, SF Rakeem Buckles, PF Gorgui Dieng
Departing seniors: SG Preston Knowles
Incoming recruits: SG Wayne Blackshear, PF Chane Behanan, C Zach Price

The skinny: The Cards overachieved in 2010-11, winning 25 games and finishing tied for third in the Big East. Expect more next season. Siva’s primed for a breakout season, Kuric and Smith developed into key players and Buckles and Swopshire will both be healthy. Given that their only roster loss (Knowles) will be offset by Blackshear’s addition, Louisville’s ready to push Syracuse and UConn for the Big East title.

8. Texas

Record: 28-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG J’Covan Brown, PG Cory Joseph, PF Alexis Wangmere
Departing seniors: PF Gary Johnson, PG Jai Lucas, PG Dogus Balbay
May lose: SF Jordan Hamilton, C Tristan Thompson
Incoming recruits: PG Myck Kabongo, PF Jonathan Holmes, SG Julien Jones, SG Sheldon McClellan, PF Kevin Thomas

The skinny: It wouldn’t be Texas if Rick Barnes didn’t have to deal with serious roster attrition. He loses two reliable seniors, but not having Hamilton and Thompson would be far more crucial. After the ‘Horns’ NCAA tournament loss, both said they’d return to school, but UT seems likely to lose at least one, maybe both. The incoming talent will offset most of that, but the eternal Texas questions will remain – just how good will the Longhorns be and will they put it together when it matters? This ranking may ultimately be too optimistic.

9. Michigan

Record: 21-14 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Darius Morris, SG Tim Hardaway, C Jordan Morgan, SF Zack Novak, SG Stu Douglass, PF Evan Smotrycz, PF Jon Horford
Departing seniors: None
Incoming recruits: SG Carlton Brundidge, PG Trey Burke

The skinny: Best team in the Big Ten? I’ll make that leap. Every starter returns from a team that posted a negative efficiency margin during conference play, but has the talent to do more than make small improvements. Michigan’s good enough to be next year’s breakthrough team, much like UConn was in 2010-11. Morris, Hardaway and Morgan are a solid young trio who will be reason why. Morris and Hardaway can create their own shots, while Morgan’s a beats on the boards. The wild card? John Beilein’s offense relies on 3-pointers more than just about any other team. The Wolverines were about average (35.3 percent) this season; a slight uptick next year would be the difference between 20 wins and 27.

10. Ohio State

Record: 34-3 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PG Aaron Craft, SG William Buford, SF Deshaun Thomas, SG Jordan Sibert
Departing seniors: SG Jon Diebler, SF David Lighty, C Dallas Lauderdale
May lose: C Jared Sullinger
Incoming recruits: C Amir Williams, C Trey McDonald, SF Sam Thompson, SF LaQuinton Ross, PG Shannon Scott, transfer Evan Ravenel.

The skinny: Thad Matta has another solid class of recruits, but the Buckeyes’ status as an elite team depends on Sullinger’s NBA draft decision. He says he’ll be back, but until then, things are in flux in Columbus. Well, a little anyway.  Buford and Thomas should have more prominent roles, but with the addition of solid freshmen such as Williams and Ross, expect Ohio State to remain a balanced, inside-outside team that flirts with the Top 10 throughout the season. If Sullinger’s back, it’ll be a Top 10 mainstay.

11. UCLA

Record: 23-11 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Josh Smith, PF Reeves Nelson, PG Lazeric Jones, SG Jerime Anderson, PF Anthony Stover, PF Brendan Lane, SG Tyler Lamb
Departing seniors: None
May lose: SG Malcolm Lee, SF Tyler Honeycutt
Incoming recruits: SG Norman Powell, SG De’End Parker, PFs David and Travis Wear (transfers), PG Larry Drew II (transfer)

The skinny: Not sure why I have the Bruins this high. Maybe it felt like I should. They’ll only lose Honeycutt (Lee’s probably coming back) from a team that clicked at season’s end and added even more talent to the roster in Powell and the Wear twins. It should be a good team. My issue? I’m not sure it’s a Top 10 team. No one on the roster is an elite player, which could prove to be the Bruins’ undoing. Still, it wouldn’t be the first team to thrive without having a go-to guy.

12. Vanderbilt

Record: 23-11 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Festus Ezeli, PG Brad Tinsley, PF Lance Goulbourne, PF Steve Tchiengang
Departing seniors: None
May lose: SG John Jenkins, SF Jeff Taylor
Incoming recruits: SG Dai-Jon Parker, PG Kedren Johnson, PF Shelby Morris

The skinny: Jenkins and Taylor are the key. Feels like both will be back, which would give Vandy everyone from a team that’s due for a big year. The talent is there for big things. Question is if the Commodores can play enough defense to get it done.

13. Wisconsin

Record: 25-9 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PG Jordan Taylor, SG Josh Gasser, SF Mike Bruesewitz, SF Ryan Evans, PF Jared Berggren
Departing seniors: PF Jon Leuer, SF Keaton Nankivil, SF Tim Jarmusz
Incoming recruits: PF Jarrod Uthoff, SG Traevon Jackson, C Frank Kaminsky

The skinny: Write off the Badgers if you like. But with a solid core returning, a 4-star prospect in Uthoff coming in and Taylor – a national player of the year candidate – running the show, Wisconsin’s going to be what it always is under coach Bo Ryan: Fantastic at home, solid on the road and brutally efficient on offense. Question is, can Taylor turn them into a Top 10 team?

14. Cincinnati

Record: 26-9 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Yancy Gates, SG Sean Kilpatrick, SG Dion Dixon, PG Cashmere Wright, G Jaquon Parker, SF Justin Jackson
Departing seniors: SF Rashad Bishop, C Ibrahima Thomas
Incoming recruits: SF Shaquille Thomas, SF Jermaine Sanders, SG Jeremiah Davis, SG Ge-Lawn Guyn

The skinny: This might be too low given who the Bearcats return and with the addition of Thomas, but I’m rolling with it. When Cincinnati’s offense finally matches its defense – and when Gates plays consistently — it could be a Top 10 team.

15. Kansas

Record: 35-3 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Tyshawn Taylor, PF Thomas Robinson, PG Elijah Johnson
Departing seniors: SG Brady Morningstar, SG Tyrel Reed, SF Mario Little
May lose: SF Marcus Morris, PF Markieff Morris, SG Josh Selby
Incoming recruits: PG Nadir Thorpe, SG Ben McLemore

The skinny: The Jayhawks will be dealing with serious attrition yet again. The Morris twins are all but gone and could be joined by Selby. That’s yet another talent drain coach Bill Self has to address in recent years – this one might be a little rougher transition than in 2009. Kansas added one late recruit in McLemore, but brining in PF DeAndre Daniels would be a welcome addition. Still, if the Jayhawks are to stay atop the Big 12, they’ll need Robinson and Johnson to boost their games as starters.

16. Temple

Record: 26-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG Ramone Moore, PG Juan Fernandez, SG Khalif Wyatt, PF Michael Eric, SF Rahlier Jefferson, SF Scootie Randall
Departing seniors: PF Lavoy Allen
Incoming recruits: PG Will Cummings, SF Jimmy McDonnell

The skinny: The Owls will miss Allen inside, but he’s the only guy gone from a team that thrived at the end of the year. They won’t turn the ball over, they’ll hit 3-pointers and they’ll win games. That gets you in the Top 25.

17. Memphis

Record: 25-10 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Joe Jackson, PF Tarik Black, SF Drew Barnham, SG Antonio Barton, SG Charles Carmouche, SF Wesley Witherspoon.
Departing seniors: PF Will Coleman
May lose: SG Will Barton
Incoming recruits: SF Adonis Thomas

The skinny: Will Barton says he’ll return, but that could change. If he does stay, the Tigers will have as much talent as any team in the nation when you include Thomas, one of the elite 2011 recruits. The question isn’t talent, though. It’s whether Memphis’ awful offense improves and if they expand enough effort on defense.

18. Texas A&M

Record: 24-9 (Second round of NCAA tournament
Key returnees
: SF Khris Middleton, PF David Loubeau, PF Kourtney Roberson, SG Dash Harris, SF Naji Hibbert, SF Ray Turner
Departing seniors: PG B.J. Holmes, SF Nathan Walkup
Incoming recruits: PG Jamal Branch, SG Jordan Green, SF Elston Turner (transfer)

The skinny: The Aggies don’t win any beauty contests, but that’s by design. They’r here because of their defense. Simple as that. It also helps to return four of five starters and to plug in a recruit like Branch. If Middleton’s offense continues to develop, A&M will be more than defensive show.

19. Pitt

Key returnees: SF Nasir Robinson, PG Travon Woodall, PF Dante Taylor, SG J.J. Moore, SF Lamar Patterson, PF Talib Zanna
Departing seniors: SG Brad Wanamaker, SF Gilbert Brown, C Gary McGhee
May lose: SG Ashton Gibbs
Incoming recruits: PF Khem Birch, SG Durand Johnson, C Malcolm Gilbert, PF Jaylen Byrd, SG John Johnson.

The skinny: If Gibbs stays in the NBA draft, the Big East champs will be out four starters. That also happened in 2009 as Pitt set out rebuilding with a roster filled with good, not great players. Well, the Panthers won 25 games the next year. Given that Robinson, Woodall and Taylor were all significant parts of this year’s team and Moore seems poised for a breakout season, that win total seems doable. If Gibbs returns, even better.

20. Purdue

Key returnees: SF Robbie Hummel, PG Lewis Jackson, SF D.J. Byrd, SG Ryne Smith, SF John Hart, SG Terone Johnson, SF Kelsey Barlow, PF Patrick Bade, PF Travis Carroll
Departing seniors: SG E’Twaun Moore, C JaJaun JOhnson
Incoming recruits: PF Jacob Lawson, PF Donnie Hale

The skinny: Johnson and Moore are gone, but the Boilermakers have three key pieces returning: Hummel – who sat out the entire 2010-11 season – Jackson and coach Matt Painter. Painter, who spurned Missouri’s efforts to lure him away from West Lafayette, may be the most crucial piece, too. His teams are routinely boast one of the nation’s most efficient defenses (though last year’s offense was none too shabby), which will be key to competing for another Big Ten title.

21. Butler

Record: 28-10 (Lost in national championship)
Key returnees
: SG Shelvin Mack, PF Khyle Marshall, PG Ronald Nored, C Andrew Smith, SF Chase Stigall
Departing seniors: PF Matt Howard, PG Shawn Vanzant, SG Zach Hahn
Incoming recruits: PF Kameron Woods, SF Roosevelt Jones, SF Andrew Smeathers

The skinny: Howard, Vanzant and Hahn are gone, but nobody’s gonna write off Butler, right? Mack and Nored are still running the show and the Bulldogs welcome two recruits in Woods and Jones who can contribute right away. The Bulldogs will guard, they’ll score efficiently and they’ll win. But it might not always be pretty.

22. George Mason

Record: 27-7 (Third round of tournament)
Key returnees
: SF Ryan Pearson, SG Luke Hancock, PG Andre Cornelius, PF Mike Morrison, SG Vertrail Vaughns
Departing seniors: SG Cam Long, SF Isaiah Tate
Incoming recruits: SF Vaughn Gray, PG Corey Edwards

The skinny: Too high? Nah. The Patriots played well enough to be ranked this season and they return more than enough talent and experienced players to get some early props. Maybe Mason has less room for error than say, Kansas, and might not shoot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc again, but there’s enough here for a spot in the Top 25.

23. Marquette

Record: 22-15 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: SG Darius Johnson-Odum, PF Jae Crowder, PG Junior Cadougan, SG Vander Blue, C Davante Gardner
Departing seniors: SF Jimmy Butler, SG Dwight Buycks
Incoming recruits: SF Juan Anderson, SG Todd Mayo, PG Derrick Wilson, SF Jamil Wilson (Transfer)

The skinny: Coach Buzz Williams is back and he’s got his roster of solid, underrated players with him. That Sweet 16 berth wasn’t a fluke because the Golden Eagles were always a team that was far better than its record indicated. That’ll be true again in 2011-12 when Johnson-Odom, Crowder and Cadougan get a boost from Anderson.

24. Belmont

Record: 30-5 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG Ian Clark, PF Mick Hedgepeth, PG Kerron Johnson, PF Scott Saunders, PG Drew Hanlen, SF J.J. Mann
Departing seniors: SG Jordan Campbell, SF Jon House

The skinny: The A-Sun champs lose two starters, but that’s just a technicality. The Bruins used so many guys last season, everyone logged significant minutes during their 30-win season. Besides, their top players – Clark, Hedgepeth and Saunders – are all back, along with that full-court pressing defense.

25. Florida

Record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: SG Kenny Boynton, PG Erving Walker, PF Erick Murphy, PF Patric Young, SF Casey Prather, SG Scottie Wilbekin
Departing seniors: PF Vernon Macklin, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Alex Tyus
Incoming recruits: SG Brad Beal, SG Mike Rosario (transfer)

The skinny: The Gators are loaded – with shooters. Boynton and Walker can hoist their share of shots, but how will it work with the additions of Beal and Rosario? Someone’s gonna have to pass and defend. They’ll certainly miss the steady play of Macklin, Parsons and Tyus, though. So why are they ranked? There’s too much talent to ignore.

Best of the rest: Wichita State, Clemson, Michigan State, Alabama, New Mexico, Arkansas, Villanova, Xavier, Gonzaga, Florida State, West Virginia.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

  1. astrozac - Apr 5, 2011 at 12:54 PM

    Where’s the love for Mizzou? I don’t care if Anderson is leaving and an unknown system/coaching style is coming in. Justin Safford was the only loss. Even if the Pressey brothers bolt with Anderson, they’ve got Marcus Denmon and Laurence Bowers returning, plus Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon, Kim English and Steve Moore returning(if none of them leave as well). They’ve got talent to be a Top 35 team…

  2. utteke - Apr 5, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    Michigan ranked higher than Ohio State? You seem to be assuming that Sullinger is not coming back. It’s possible but he sounds committed to returing. They will be hurt losing Lighty and Deibler to graduation but they do have the nation’s #3 class coming in. I don’t see how they aren’t ranked top 5 – just my opinion.

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